Radium girls

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Radium dial painters working in a factory
Advertisment from 1921

The radium girls were a group of female factory workers who sued their employer in 1917.

They had worked at a factory on Orange, New Jersey. Their job was to paint the dials of watches with radium paint, so that the numbers would glow in the dark. The substance used to paint was luminous paint, which contained radium. Radium is radioactive, and causes radiation sickness. The workers used paintbrushes to draw fine lines; the brush would only draw such a line when it was wet. The girls would put the brushes in their mouths to lick them. The women were told the paint was harmless. Over time, they ingested deadly amounts of radium paint. Some workers used the paint to paint their fingernails.

Unexplained deaths[change | change source]

In 1920, three big American companies produced about four million watches containing luminous paint. The best-known of these factories was in Orange, New Jersey. It belonged to the United States Radium Corporation. Other similar companies were in Connectcut, in Waterbury, Bristol, Thomaston and New Haven , as well as Ottawa, Illinois. 30 workers in Connecticut died from radiation poisoning, 35 died in Illinois, and 41 in New Jersey. Other sources speak about 40 deaths in Ottawa alone.[1]

Trying to cover up[change | change source]

At first, the dangers of radium were unknown. Over the years, many workers got sick, and some died. Employers ignored these diseases, and later tried to cover up the cases. They suffered from diseases, such as anemia, broken bones, and necrosis of the jaw, which was called Radium Jaw at the time. Different studies were done, to determine the cause of these diseases. In that context, it turned out that at least one of the studies was fraudulent; it had been commissioned by one of the companies involved.[2] U.S. Radium and otther companies tried to avoid any connection between the exposure to Radium and the diseases. Because of the pressure of the companies, the dentists and physicians involved held back their results for some time. Pathologists were also put under pressure, to attribute the death of the women to other causes. Very often, the death was attributed to Syphilis, which also harmed the credibility of the women.

Women suing[change | change source]

Five workers sued their employer. The case that followed made it clear that people could sue their employer, if they contract occupational diseases. Consuming radium is dangerous and it causes a symptom called "Radium Jaw".[3] The five workers won the case in 1938, and their employer had to pay damages.[4]

References[change | change source]

  1. Ann Quigley: Template:Webarchiv In: The Waterbury Observer, First published September 2002
  2. A. Bellows: Undark and the Radium Girls. In: damninteresting.com. 26. November 2007.
  3. "Radium Girls:The Story of US Radium's Superfund Site" (PDF). Preservation Snapshot. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. n.d. Retrieved September 18, 2021.
  4. Moore, Kate (2017). The Radium Girls, The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. sourcebooks.com. p. 366. ISBN 978-1492649366. Retrieved March 22, 2017.